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Falling Snow, Alaska, Denali National Park, Peak 11,300

FALLING SNOW

Alaska, Denali National Park, Peak 11,300

Around 0500 on May 3, Mountaineering Ranger Karen Hilton and her two volunteers, Carl Oswald and Matthew Smith, left their camp to patrol the Southwest Ridge of Peak 11,300, located in the West Fork of the Ruth Glacier.

For three days prior to this attempt, warm daytime temperatures and freezing nighttime temperatures provided stable melt-freeze snow conditions on the ridge. Footprints in the snow from an ascent the previous day also allowed for quick route finding through and around the short rock buttresses that characterize the route itself. The team found themselves making good time, reaching approximately 9,600 feet at the top of a major feature called “the S couloir ” by 1300. The route brought the team to a traverse on the east side of the ridge where a belay was made about 50-80 feet below the true ridge. It was at this time that a C-130 military aircraft flew over the team twice, causing concern over a possible incident elsewhere in the range. Hilton immediately established communication with the Talkeetna Ranger Station via park radio. The Station confirmed that no incident was occurring. Just seconds after placing the radio back into her pack, Hilton and her team were unexpectedly struck by a large piece of falling ice and snow. Both Oswald and Smith stated they were not hurt. However, Hilton suffered intense pain in her right arm with limited movement. Due to the immediate swelling that occurred, the team climbed an additional 50 feet and rappelled to the nearest bivouac site. After assessing her injuries, Hilton decided it would be ill-advised to continue climbing that day. South District Ranger Daryl Miller was immediately updated of the situation via satellite phone and the Talkeetna Ranger Station by park radio. By morning, Hilton’s condition had not significantly changed, and the team chose to retreat.

Hilton and her team descended the south face and arrived back at camp at the base of Peak 11,300 by 1900. The following morning, the team was picked up by Talkeetna Air Taxi and transported to Talkeetna where Hilton received treatment for her injuries.

Analysis

Being at the right place at the wrong time tends to best describe the incident that occurred during this park patrol in the Ruth Glacier area. Unfortunately, the cycle of warm daytime and cold nighttime temperatures that helped provide ideal climbing conditions on this route also caused the release of the snow and ice that forced this team to retreat. The climbing on Peak 11,300 is mainly concentrated on the ridge itself, which mitigates the exposure to objective danger from above. However, this incident is a good reminder of just how quickly the sun can affect even the smallest patches of snow and cause instability.